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Opinion | The Push for War with Iran

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

27 Oct 2011 23:41Comments

Dear Mr. President:

We are writing you because we are convinced that current American policy toward Iraq is not succeeding, and that we may soon face a threat in the Middle East more serious than any we have known since the end of the Cold War. In your upcoming State of the Union Address, you have an opportunity to chart a clear and determined course for meeting this threat. We urge you to seize that opportunity, and to enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power. We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.

The policy of "containment" of Saddam Hussein has been steadily eroding over the past several months. As recent events have demonstrated, we can no longer depend on our partners in the Gulf War coalition to continue to uphold the sanctions or to punish Saddam when he blocks or evades UN inspections. Our ability to ensure that Saddam Hussein is not producing weapons of mass destruction, therefore, has substantially diminished. Even if full inspections were eventually to resume, which now seems highly unlikely, experience has shown that it is difficult if not impossible to monitor Iraq's chemical and biological weapons production. The lengthy period during which the inspectors will have been unable to enter many Iraqi facilities has made it even less likely that they will be able to uncover all of Saddam's secrets. As a result, in the not-too-distant future we will be unable to determine with any reasonable level of confidence whether Iraq does or does not possess such weapons.

Such uncertainty will, by itself, have a seriously destabilizing effect on the entire Middle East. It hardly needs to be added that if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as he is almost certain to do if we continue along the present course, the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world's supply of oil will all be put at hazard. As you have rightly declared, Mr. President, the security of the world in the first part of the 21st century will be determined largely by how we handle this threat.

Given the magnitude of the threat, the current policy, which depends for its success upon the steadfastness of our coalition partners and upon the cooperation of Saddam Hussein, is dangerously inadequate. The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.

We urge you to articulate this aim, and to turn your Administration's attention to implementing a strategy for removing Saddam's regime from power. This will require a full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts. Although we are fully aware of the dangers and difficulties in implementing this policy, we believe the dangers of failing to do so are far greater. We believe the U.S. has the authority under existing UN resolutions to take the necessary steps, including military steps, to protect our vital interests in the Gulf. In any case, American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council.

We urge you to act decisively. If you act now to end the threat of weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. or its allies, you will be acting in the most fundamental national security interests of the country. If we accept a course of weakness and drift, we put our interests and our future at risk.

[ opinion ] The preceding letter was sent to President Bill Clinton on January 26, 1998, by the now defunct Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative group cofounded by William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, and Robert Kagan, who is married to Victoria Nuland, currently the State Department's spokeswoman. Most of the signatories later served in the George W. Bush (GWB) administration and justified the wars that he began in the Middle East in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most, if not all, the signatories were steadfast supporters of Israel. In addition to Kristol and Kagan, they included such figures as Elliot Abrams (deputy national security adviser in the GWB administration in charge of the Middle East), Richard L. Armitage (Colin Powell's deputy at the State Department from 2001 to 2005), John Bolton (former ambassador to the United Nations), Francis Fukuyama (professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University), Zalmay Khalilzad (U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations), Richard Perle (former assistant secretary of defense, known as the "prince of darkness"), Donald Rumsfeld (secretary of defense in both the Ford and GWB administrations), Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense in the GWB administration and former disgraced head of the World Bank), and R. James Woolsey (CIA director from 1992 to 1994).

Note how the letter called for war with Iraq to protect not just Israel but also "moderate Arab states," the same Arab governments that have been falling one after another like leaves from autumn trees. The goal of the letter was ultimately achieved. It set the stage for the shift of U.S. policy toward Iraq from containment to regime change. On October 31, 1998, President Clinton signed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which was intended to provide support to the Iraqi opposition to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime. Passing by a vote of 360-38 in the House and unanimously in the Senate, it was supposed to provide $100 million to the Iraqi opposition.

But the hubris of the warmongers did not start with that letter. In 1996, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in Jerusalem issued a report, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," prepared by U.S. neocons and members of Israel's ultra-right for Benjamin Netanyahu, then and now Israel's prime minister. It stated,

Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq -- an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.... Jordan has challenged Syria's regional ambitions recently by suggesting the restoration of Hashemites in Iraq.... Since Iraq's future could affect the strategic balance in the Middle East profoundly, it would be understandable that Israel has an interest in supporting the Hashemites in their efforts to redefine Iraq.

The Hashemite dynasty in Iraq was overthrown in 1958 in a coup by General Abdulkarim Qassim, a leftist-nationalist officer. The authors of the report were fantasizing about installing a puppet in Iraq, but note how wrong they were about everything. Turkey is now governed by Islamic parties that have decisively changed its views of the region, to the extent that Turkey is no longer an ally of Israel, while the Jordanian monarchy is in deep trouble as a result of the Arab Spring. Here is perhaps the most glaring demonstration of the authors' lack of understanding of the Middle East and Islam:

Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najaf to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizbollah, Iran, and Syria. Shia retain strong ties to the Hashemites: The Shia venerate foremost the Prophet's family, the direct descendants of which -- and in whose veins the blood of the prophet flows -- is King Hussein.

The statement is so absurd and its falsehood has been proven so comprehensively that it requires no explanation here.

Despite having been totally discredited by the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the coming to power in Iraq of Shia groups allied with Iran, and the unfinished Arab Spring that has had nothing to do with the neoconservatives' vision for the Middle East, the warmongers have not stopped advocating another invasion. In fact, the path that they have taken to achieve their goal is strikingly similar to the push for invasion of Iraq in the 1990s.


Why is such old news important at this time? In June 2009, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a pro-Israel think tank, published a 170-page analysis paper on Iran. Titled Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy Toward Iran, it stated that the only way the U.S. government can "garner greater international support, galvanize U.S. domestic support, and/or provide a legal justification for an invasion" is for Tehran's hardliners to take strong, provocative action against the United States. The paper was cowritten by Kenneth M. Pollack, Daniel L. Byman, Martin Indyk, Suzanne Maloney, Michael E. O'Hanlon, and Bruce Riedel.

Pollack, a former CIA officer, is a Middle East pundit. In 2002, he came out with The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which many interpreted as providing justification for the invasion. He supported the troop surge in Iraq five years later, as well. He subsequently came out with another book, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, in which he argues that in dealing with Iran, diplomacy is more effective than a policy of regime change, because Iran's leaders are divided between pragmatists who want to improve the economy and hardliners who fear a U.S. attack. Byman, in addition to his work at the Brookings Institution, is a professor at Georgetown University and is considered a counterterrorism expert. Indyk, who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, was twice the U.S. ambassador to Israel and the framer of the so-called dual-containment policy during the Clinton administration, under which both Iran and Iraq were to be contained. He is known as a leading advocate of Israel's interests in the United States.

Maloney, who also specialized in Iran, is the author of Iran's Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. O'Hanlon originally predicted that invading Iraq would be very difficult, but by late 2002 he was a proponent of the invasion. After the war went badly, O'Hanlon and Pollack presented themselves as "two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq," a claim that was widely refuted. O'Hanlon has also supported President Obama's policy on Afghanistan. A former CIA analyst, Riedel is considered an expert on terrorism and conflict resolution. He has published several articles on Iran; see, for example, here.

Which Path to Persia? discusses the pros and cons of all the options that the United States has in dealing with Iran, from diplomacy to military options that include air strikes, invasion, facilitation of an Israeli strike, support for a "velvet revolution," incitement of ethnic minorities, and backing of a military coup. While it does not say that the United States must attack Iran, it states that if Iran undertakes "an overt, incontrovertible, and unforgivable act of aggression -- something on the order of an Iranian-backed 9/11," then a military strike on Iran can be justified, both to the American people and the outside world, and it suggests that the United States may want to consider taking an action against Iran that would provoke it to react strongly enough to justify a large-scale military response. The paper expresses frustration the Islamic Republic has to date failed to provide such grand provocation:

Since the 1978 revolution, the Islamic Republic has never willingly provoked an American military response, although it certainly has taken actions that could have done so, if Washington had been looking for a fight. Thus, it is not impossible that Tehran might take some action that would justify an American invasion. And it is certainly the case that if Washington sought such a provocation, it could take actions that might make it more likely that Tehran would do so (although being too obvious about this could nullify the provocation). However, since it would be up to Iran to make the provocative move, which Iran has been wary of doing most times in the past, the United States would never know for sure when it would get the requisite Iranian provocation. In fact, it might never come at all.

The "Quds Force plot" and its uses

The recent U.S. allegations about a plot by Iran's Quds Force to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington and attack the Saudi and Israeli embassies may provide just such an opportunity. In an article published by the Daily Beast, Pollack, the lead author of the Brookings Institution analysis, called the alleged plot

a mass casualty attack on U.S. soil -- [that] would go well beyond what Iran has attempted in the past[;] it would represent an extrapolation of another pattern, namely the emergence of a more aggressive, risk-tolerant Iranian regime over the past two years.

In his view,

[T]he regime is willing to go way beyond anything it has ever done before to strike blows against the United States in this war. The regime may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation. In the past that fear has been an important restraint on Iranian action against the United States.

While Pollack conceded that, concerning the alleged plot,

even if the claim is shown to be valid, we should not assume that this means that Iran is an irrational nation hell-bent on harming Americans at any cost, as it is sometimes depicted in the Western press.... The Tehran regime is not Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

He concluded that if the allegations are proven true,

it should remind us that Iran also is not a normal country by any stretch of the imagination, and that in a Middle East already in turmoil we now face a more aggressive, more risk-taking Iran that may be looking to stir the pot in ways that it once found imprudent.

Is this Pollack's way of saying that if the plot is proven to be true, the provocation that he and his Which Path to Persia? coauthors described has actually been committed and, thus, military strikes and even invasion are justified? Recall that this is the same Pollack who wrote The Threatening Storm to make the case for why Iraq had to be invaded, and that he presented himself at the time as a moderate who had only reluctantly come to that conclusion. Is this his way of saying that he is now reluctantly reaching the conclusion that Iran too should be attacked?

Here is what Byman said about the alleged plot:

Iran has been in a tense showdown with Saudi Arabia, and it has been simultaneously emboldened by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and frightened by the Arab Spring democracy movement that has destabilized its ally Syria. Given that Iran has historically approved such Quds Force operations at a very high level, if the plot is true, it may suggest that all those forces and pressures are making Tehran much more risk tolerant.

Indyk opined,

When I worked in the White House I was told that elements within the Iranian regime had put a contract out for my assassination, and I wasn't the only senior Clinton administration official who was targeted and had to have Secret Service protection.

Apparently, the supposed threat was taken seriously enough to provide Indyk with Secret Service protection, but was not serious enough to be ever mentioned up to now and was never used publicly by the Clinton administration against the Islamic Republic. Indyk added,

Iran is quite capable of doing something that we regard as unbelievably brazen, and our assessment of whether an Iranian threat is credible or not shouldn't be based on what seems rational to us. They operate according to different calculations.

Note the similarities between the opinions of the three men.

The neocons have, of course, been busy using the plot allegations to advance what they have wanted for at least a decade, namely, military attacks on Iran, never mind that almost all objective analysts have expressed serious doubts about the allegations. The always excellent Jim Lobe has written about the neocons' efforts. Using an argument strikingly similar to the one employed in the Brookings Institution paper, Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard,

This Iranian regime has the blood of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan on its hands. It's a sponsor and facilitator of terror organizations that have killed innocent Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, Afghans, Argentines, and many others. It's a brutal dictatorship. And it's seeking nuclear weapons while denying it's doing so. It's long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands -- force.

And now we have an engraved invitation to do so. The plot to kill the Saudi ambassador was a lemon. Statesmanship involves turning lemons into lemonade. So we can stop talking. Instead, we can follow the rat lines in Iraq and Afghanistan back to their sources, and destroy them. We can strike at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and weaken them. And we can hit the regime's nuclear weapons program, and set it back. Lest the administration hesitate to act out of fear of lack of support at home, Congress should consider authorizing the use of force against Iranian entities that facilitate attacks on our troops, against IRGC and other regime elements that sponsor terror, and against the regime's nuclear weapons program.

Former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht, another hawk who supported the invasion of Iraq and has repeatedly called for military strikes on Iran, said of the alleged plot, "Iran's leaders did not fear a muscular American response," and unless the United States responds forcefully, "we are setting the stage for further Iranian belligerence, because they will see that they can plan an operation...get caught, and the Americans do nothing." In a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Iran's Act of War," Geretcht, after surveying the Islamic Republic's foreign activities over the past 30 years, wrote,

The Obama administration will be tempted to respond against Iran with further unilateral and multilateral sanctions. More sanctions aren't a bad idea -- targeted sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards and the sale of gasoline made from Iranian crude can hurt Tehran financially. But they will not scare it. The White House needs to respond militarily to this outrage. If we don't, we are asking for it.

After the Project for the New American Century went out of business, Kristol and others founded the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI). Andrew C. McCarthy, an FBI member, supported use of water-boarding to extract confessions from suspected terrorists, and has been outspoken against President Obama. In an article published by National Review Online, "Breaking Tehran," McCarthy wrote,

It is one thing to pretend that a jihadist campaign by a sub-sovereign terror network is just a crime spree for which trial in the civilian justice system is an adequate response. Iran, however, is a state actor -- not even arguably amenable to court prosecution. A state aggressor must get a political response, not a legal one. There is a range of possible political responses, of course, but given its three-decade campaign of aggression, the response to Iran must be military -- and decisive. The regime must be destroyed.

In another article published by National Review Online, "Iran is Dangerous and Diplomacy has Failed," FPI Executive Director Jamie M. Fly wrote,

As developments this week make abundantly clear, our disgraceful attempts to "engage" the despotic regime in Tehran -- even as Iranians tried to overthrow their leaders in 2009 and even as Americans were dying in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hands of the Qods force -- have failed. Fortunately, there is a template for action from President Obama's predecessors in the Oval Office. An appropriate response would be targeted strikes against key regime facilities that support Iran's illicit activities.

Fly called on the president to emulate Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton when they ordered military strikes on Libya and Iraq in 1986 and 1998, respectively.

And the Iran Policy Committee, which lobbies on behalf of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) and has been trying to get the MKO removed from the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, hastily organized a conference on October 17. The participants were Alireza Jafarzadeh; Michael B. Mukasey, attorney general in the GWB administration from 2007 to 2009; and Raymond Tanter, the pro-MKO academic who has advocated military confrontation with Iran. Here is what Mukasey said:

If the current crime the Iranian regime apparently committed provides the occasion for anything, it should certainly provide an opportunity for delisting the MEK [MKO] as a step toward recognizing that the policy of this country should be not engagement but regime change.... [C]ontinued listing is totally unjustified as a legal matter. There are no facts that justify maintaining MEK on the terrorist list.

It is not clear what connection is supposed to exist between the plot and the delisting of the MKO, but the advocacy of regime change policy speaks for itself.

And here is what Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute says: "The terror plot was no rogue action. Obama may hold an olive branch, but the White House must recognize the Iranian regime's fist holds only blood. The time for talk has ended." I suppose if the time for talk has expired, the time for war has begun, right?

And the call for war or crippling sanctions against Iran is not coming just from the usual American suspects, but also from Iranians. The MKO and the extreme royalists are, of course celebrating, believing or hoping that the allegations about the plot will lead to a military confrontation, or at least a further ramping up of sanctions.

Similar calls, however, have been coming from seemingly unexpected quarters, as well. Masoud Kazemzadeh, a self-described member of the National Front, which says it believes in Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh and his ideals, called for "strong action" by the United States and/or Saudi Arabia. In an op-ed he wrote for Journal of Turkish Weekly, Kazemzadeh not only accepted the Obama administration's narrative of the alleged plot, he also made unfounded allegations about Iran's role in, for example, the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. More importantly, here is how he defined "strong action":

If the Obama administration were to respond strongly (e.g., call for the replacement of the current regime with democracy, boycott of oil purchases from the regime, military strikes), then we will observe a serious escalation in the U.S.-Iran confrontation.

In other words, a policy of regime change, military strikes, and boycott of Iranian oil constitute "strong action." Kazemzadeh continued,

If the Obama administration does not respond strongly, that will show to the people of the Middle East the utter collapse of American might, which would encourage and galvanize Iran and its proxies to make further violent attacks on the U.S. and its allies. If the U.S. does not respond strongly, a serious confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the likely outcome with the very high likelihood of a regional conflagration. If Saudi Arabia does not use a strong response either, that would clearly show to Iran's leaders that they could pursue other bellicose policies without concern for retaliation.

In other words, nothing short of "strong action," as defined by Kazemzadeh, will satisfy him. Goading Saudi Arabia's regime, one of the most reactionary dictatorships in the world, to "use a strong response" to the Islamic Republic, as terrible as the Iranian regime is, is beyond the pale, especially coming from a man who says he is an adherent of Mosaddegh's thinking. In other articles posted on Iranian.com, Kazemzadeh has also supported removing the MKO from the FTO list.

That the usual American suspects, as well as the MKO and the extreme Iranian royalists, want war with Iran is no surprise. But those Iranians who claim to want democracy, the rule of law, and respect for all Iranians' human rights, and yet advocate war and crippling sanctions that will only hurt ordinary Iranians, must recognize one simple principle: Iran and its territorial integrity must first be preserved before one worries about democracy and respect for human rights there. A war with Iran will set the entire region in flames, and, quite possibly, lead to the country's disintegration. Those who oppose war and crippling sanctions -- such as the author -- wish to defend Iran, not the Velaayat-e Faghih dictatorship of Seyyed Ali Khamenei. Unfortunately, the warmongers do not understand the simple difference between the two.

It is also possible that, despite the best efforts of the warmongers, no war will be waged on Iran. But one can never be sure, so it is crucial to inform the public about the catastrophic consequences such a war would bring, both for Iran and Iranians, and for the rest of the world, particularly the people of the United States.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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